Jim Wallis wants you to know he's not a liberal. Yes, he's been a chief critic of the Religious Right since its inception, gave the Democratic weekly radio address after the 2006 midterm elections, and has been an often-controversial voice for social justice since his early-'70s days at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. But, he says, his chief critics these days are liberals, not conservatives. "There is a Religious Left in this country, and I'm not a part of it," Wallis said when he stopped by Christianity Today's offices during his February tour for his latest book, The Great Awakening. Meanwhile, he says, theologically conservative evangelicals (especially young ones) are flocking to his message and are "deserting the Religious Right in droves" because it attempted to "restrict the language of 'moral values' to just two issuesabortion and gay marriage."
"For years I have been called a progressive evangelical, but people said that was a misnomer," says Wallis, who turns 60 in June. "The misnomer is becoming a movement."
The Great Awakening is full of prescriptions on the broader social agenda: poverty, genocide in Darfur, global warming, the Iraq war, and other issues widely covered in Wallis's Sojourners magazine and his previous books. But The Great Awakening contains public-policy positions Wallis promotes less often: abortion and gay marriage, those two pillars of the Religious Right. He discussed these issues, and others, in further detail with CT's editors.
You repeatedly cite William Wilberforce as someone who did Christian political engagement right. But aren't your views on abortion"protecting unborn life in every possible way, but without criminalizing abortion"fundamentally at odds with Wilberforce's efforts to totally abolish slavery? He felt that "protecting slaves" without criminalizing slavery was unjust.
The abortion debate has really gotten very stale. It's a symbolic legal battle that takes place mostly only in election years. And it's a litmus test on the Left and the Right. No one seems to care about the abortion rate. The Republicans want a constitutional amendment banning abortion. That's just symbolic. It's never going to happen in America. And even if you do ban it, you're still going to have a huge problem in the culture.
But the abortion question is real. It's a moral issue. The number of unborn lives that are lost every year is alarming. It's a moral tragedy. And I want Democrats to say it's a tragedy, and to take it seriously. Whichever Democrat wins, Barack or Hillary, I'm going to work very hard to make abortion reduction a central Democratic Party plank in this election. It never has been before. Their plank is simply a woman's right to choose. That's not adequate. The Democratic Party is not going to call for criminalization, but they can call for serious abortion reduction. And I want Republicans to not have only a plank that they trod over every four years to win elections. I want them to try and actually help reduce the abortion rate.
After I spoke in Chicago, a father came and said, "I'm a father of a Down syndrome child. You know that test that everybody wants you to take to make sure you don't have a Down syndrome child?"
I said, "Yeah. Joy and I were pressured by our doctor to take that test because we're older parents and the chance of Down syndrome is greater. But we wouldn't take it." There was no reason to take it because we wouldn't abort our child. But the pressure was really enormous, and we just finally said, "Hey, we're not taking it. End of conversation."
This father told me that because of that test, 90 percent of Down syndrome children are now aborted. Ninety percent. That's genetic engineering, and that's a culture issue. Just changing laws isn't going to change that culture.
It should be more difficult to get an abortion. It's too easy, and it's even harder in secular western Europe than it is here. How do you make it more difficult, yet not push people back in the back alleys? That's not pro-life. I don't have it all figured out, and I want to seriously work on the question.
But a genuine pro-life agenda will be focused on the throwaway culture. The throwaway culture is why those Down syndrome kids are being thrown away. You can't accept the throwaway culture in every other area like what we do to the environment, our consumption, and the rest, then somehow change on abortion.
Still, for your entire career you've advocated a prophetic voice on social issues. Isn't the prophetic voice usually associated with articulating the bottom line without compromising on pragmatic grounds like cultural opposition or secondary effects? Wilberforce's Slavery Abolition Act created "back alley" slavery that made life much worse for slaves. But Wilberforce didn't see that as an argument against abolition.
I don't think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That's my judgment.
People make the mistake of defining prophetic by politically left and right categories, and that the further left or right you are, the more prophetic you are. They're not biblically prophetic; they're politically ideological. I think the prophetic stance right now in the pitched legal stalemate on abortion is abortion reduction. Instead of endless, meaningless debates about the law and constitutional amendments, let's actually save some unborn lives. People can disagree with my stance, and say the constitutional amendment to ban abortion is the prophetic stance. I don't believe it is.
On the issue of gay marriage, the prophetic stance, I think, is dialogue. It's talking to each other.
But you're calling for more than just dialogue, right? In your book, you say the way to ensure civil rights for gay and lesbian people and equal protection under the law for same-sex couples is "civil unions from the state and even spiritual blessings for gay couples from congregations prepared to offer them."
I believe in equal protection under the law in a democratic, pluralistic society. At Focus on the Family, I had this discussion with James Dobson's policy people, and they basically support equal protection under the law, too. Some would debate whether civil unions are necessary for that, or whether other legal protections are adequate. And that's a fair discussion.
I don't think the sacrament of marriage should be changed. Some people say that Jesus didn't talk about homosexuality, and that's technically true. But marriage is all through the Bible, and it's not gender-neutral.
I have never done a blessing for a same-sex couple. I've never been asked to do one. I'm not sure that I would. I want churches that disagree on this to have a biblical, theological conversation and to live with their differences and not spend 90 percent of their denominational time arguing about this issue when 30,000 children are dying every single day because of poverty and disease.
I don't have all the answers on homosexuality. Fifty years from now, when we understand more what's going on, we'll look back and we'll ask: How did we treat gay and lesbian people? Did they feel like we treated them the way Jesus might have? And how do we treat each other in this conversation? When this becomes the defining issue of our time, I get nervous.
Are you concerned, though, that taking advertising in Sojourners magazine from Human Rights Campaign [a gay-rights group] makes it seem that it is a bigger issue for you?
Advertising is always a difficult question. I had real mixed feelings about those ads. We probably wouldn't do it again, because when you take advertising it implies you might be sympathetic to the advertising. But we don't take a position on this except promoting dialogue. At Sojourners, we've decided to have a safe place for dialogue and even disagreement on our staff and in our constituency.
But blessing ceremonies for same-gender couples isn't just dialogue. It's a decisive action, and that can prompt other decisions. How do you counsel those who feel it's a violation of their consciences to submit to a system they find unbiblical?
The Episcopal Church showed some typical American arrogance around the Robinson ordination when they weren't willing to continue to be in conversation with their brothers and sisters in the Anglican Communion globally. But the church shouldn't divide over this. They should stay together, live with their differences, keep talking, and respect each other's opinions. There are churches that will bless gay unions, and that's just a fact. They're there. And there are churches that won't. And those that won't shouldn't be pressured to do so by their liberal denominational leaders.
But for many who won't, it's a gospel issue. It's one of the markers of evangelicals in the mainline churches.
There are prudential judgments we all make, but there are principles that we should all affirm. And for too long there was a political orthodoxy that was quietly folded into theological orthodoxy that just wasn't right.
[Former Sen.] Mark Hatfield and I were both banned from speaking at Wheaton College because we didn't support the war in Vietnam. And now my archives are in Wheaton's Billy Graham Library, so things have changed. Trinity tried to dismiss me from school, and actually said to me, "There's no problem here with your theological orthodoxy, with your academic performance, with your social behavior. The problem is you cost the school a million dollars in lost contributions because of your political activism." The good news was that half the student body and half the faculty rose up and said that's not right, and the school backed off.
But there has never been a doubt that I am an evangelical. In fact, the Sojourners community had its fatal split many years ago when a number of people in the community, including some of my fellow elders, really wanted to change our theological orthodoxy and were attracted to people like Matthew Fox, the creation spirituality theologian. And I just said, "Matthew Fox is a heretic, and we're committed to the central lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scriptures."
And they said, "Well, we're not. Not all of us."
I said, "Well, Sojourners is. Even if you're not, Sojourners is and it's going to remain that way." I was accused of hierarchy and patriarchy, they quit, and we split. And that was the end of the residential community in some ways. But I took a stand, as I always did, for orthodoxy.
There is a conversation in our place that is ongoing about how evangelical or ecumenical we are, and not all of our folks are as evangelical as I am. But I'm the founder and president still. I'm not dead yet. I went to Trinity because I wanted to have this discussion in the evangelical world. And then for a long time evangelicals weren't really responding to us at Sojourners. Now they are.
What's the change you see? Many observers think it's that a new generation of evangelicals are interested in poverty or other social ills. But that's not new. Churches have a long history of assisting the poor (though they could have done more). What strikes me as new is that evangelical Christians are coupling what they do on the local, person-to-person level with a public-policy initiative.
Right. I recently met with Willow Creek's social justice team. It wasn't the social service team. They knew the difference. The God of the Bible is not just a God of charity. The God of the Bible is a God of justice, and they understood that.
You have been one of the most outspoken evangelical critics of the Iraq war. Has the surge changed your opinion?
I haven't changed my view at all. The war in Iraq was not a just war. It didn't conform to the standards at all. And that's the view of the vast majority of evangelicals around the world. I think it was the worst mistake in American foreign-policy history, with the exception of Vietnam.
Did the surge make security gains? Yes. Is that a lasting solution? No. There's still very little movement on the political front. Is the surge working to reduce the violence? Yes. Does that mean the war in Iraq was a good idea after all? No. But I'm not calling for immediate withdrawal. Now that we've gone in there and made such a mess of it, there has to be a responsible transition, saving and protecting as many lives as possible, and an internationalizing of the security problem.
When the surge was announced in January 2007, you called it criminal. In November, you called for war crimes investigations against Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld after the election. Do you still want them?
Whether investigations are the best thing after it's done, I'm not sure. We need to learn what happened this time so it never happens again. If a Democrat wins in November, will I be standing in line with my first demand of the new administration to put Cheney in front of a Senate panel? I doubt it. I just want him to go back to Wyoming. And I have many other things to say before that, like putting poverty on the agenda. But there are days when I get so angry about the loss of life and the deception that I want Cheney to pay, I suppose. But my better, more Christian self would probably just want to move forward.
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John Wilson profiled Jim Wallis in 1999.
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